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A short history of what man covets most - STUFF

By Chris Shaw - posted Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Humans invented boats in early historical times. Eventually they found ways of making them bigger and sending them ever further away from home. Those boats became the first machines for getting stuff, which was just as well, because the princes and barons who had the most stuff were beginning to get a little paranoid about running out of it.

Sometime later, the Americas were discovered. The natives had so much stuff, it made the head spin. Best of all, they didn't know about stuff, which gave the visitors a great advantage over them. Their continent was so rich with stuff, the boats couldn't take it all away. There was nothing else for it but to settle down and just use up the stuff where it lay.

Meanwhile, back east

For centuries, the Middle East just baked in the sun. The natives didn't really have any stuff that anyone wanted. They had plenty of sand, but nobody wanted that stuff, so they were left pretty much alone. They were skilful at transporting stuff from far away. They were happy to fetch stuff across the burning desert, from other lands that did have plenty of stuff. Everyone was more affable then.


It was noticed that the Middle East was full of ancient ruins and skeletons that had once belonged to humans who had eventually run out of stuff. If anything, that only served to make visitors feel more paranoid. The fact that the skeletons' descendants had learned to live without so much stuff, was a treasure that was simply overlooked.

The Middle Easterners had figured out an antidote for stuff. Some humans, like T.E. Lawrence, reckoned they were among the most liberated people on Earth.

The advent of Hydrocarbon Man

It all would have been so different if humans hadn't discovered some stuff called oil. You see, oil was a revolutionary way of getting more stuff. It allowed the machines for getting stuff to sail faster, fly through the air and to grab stuff more quickly. This was stuff raised to the Nth power (if you get my mathematical drift).

Perhaps I should clarify that statement. My great grandparents lived in a world of stuff PLUS stuff, whereas I have known nothing but stuff TIMES stuff. I live in a blizzard of stuff, without ever being aware of it. Every day a tsunami of stuff dumps a mountain of stuff at my uncomprehending, ungrateful feet.

In short, there is no other stuff which is as supercalifragilistic as oil. Why? Because oil is the only stuff capable of exerting the magical multiplier effect upon other stuff.

Some humans have pointed to the multiplying effect that oil has on foodstuffs, in which the magic pudding seems to replenish itself while we sleep. I eat magic pudding every day, but the problem is, you are what you eat.


Hydrocarbon man - that's me.

STUFF gets a life of its own

No one knows exactly when it happened, but there came a day when the growth of stuff got entirely out of hand. Thanks to oil, stuff grew faster than the ability of the human brain to comprehend it.

Many humans grew tired of even thinking about how stuff got there and invented a mystical force with a beard, which could be called upon to send more stuff if there was any unexplained shortage. They didn't do their science homework when they were kids, and it showed.

Other humans had the idea of printing tokens for all the stuff in the world. No matter how quickly stuff grew, the ability of the high-speed presses was guaranteed to match that stuff, even if it got up to light speed.

Those cultists believed that the paper tokens exerted an unexplained force upon stuff. By controlling the movement of the tokens, they reasoned that stuff might be controlled through a process of mutual attraction. In a self-congratulatory gesture, the cultists gave themselves a name - economists - which used to be a pretty big word in those days.

The economists were off to a flying start, but some silly humans forgot to be paranoid about stuff and started grabbing tokens instead. They locked the tokens away in boxes for a rainy day, which meant that the printers had to issue much more, to account for all of the stuff in the world.

For reasons lost in the mists of time, those boxes were called banks, which was silly because they were actually boxes.

Even at this stage of the story, you can see that it's all going to end in tears, because many of the humans were beginning to lose their sanity.

Frankenstein's economists

One day, without any thought for the curse of mutual attraction, the boxes of tokens were opened. In hindsight, some humans thought that those boxes should have been destroyed, but having been opened, the boxes yielded up their terrible secret.

It turned out that the total quantity of paper tokens exceeded all of the stuff in the world by a very large margin.

Then the forces of mutual attraction seemed to reach out across the globe with a giant sucking sound, in search of stuff to satisfy the tokens. Rock 'n roll superstars threw their bodies across great piles of loot in a suicidal attempt to shield the world from the deadly rays.

They needn't have bothered, because the force of mutual attraction had never existed - ever. It was all in the minds of the "Tokenistas" whose faith in the power of money had granted them trillions of free lunches, along with the unfettered and unearned ownership of the planet.

If the ordinary stuff-loving masses ever got wind of the heist, there would have been hell to pay. In order to redress the balance between tokens and stuff, the world's premiere champagne stuff-multipliers had to be applied - no less than the abundant sweet oils of Iraq and Iran.

Only those oils were capable of accelerating the quantity of all the stuff in the world, until it equalled the amount of tokens. To get that premium stuff with the greatest possible haste, the Tokenistas needed a scurvy crew with the cunning of Sir Francis Drake and the propaganda of Joseph Goebbels.

History records that the humans who stepped up to the plate in that dire hour of need, were known as the Cheney Energy Taskforce. History fails to record however, that they were all disabled.

The curse of the Tokenistas

It might be wise to take a rest from our headlong rush through the history of stuff and examine a serious mutation that arose in the human genome. As a direct result of collecting tokens, a critical mass of the human race became totally disabled.

They lost their old skills of foraging, agriculture and making-do. Their poor dear hands turned into impotent appendages, only useful for endlessly counting stuff. They became little more than heads on wheels. Their iron-lungs were called automobiles and they couldn't even defecate in the forest without the aid of appliances.

With the weakening of the body came the atrophying of the brain. They could no longer think logically, but were compelled to receive wisdom through a Tell-A-Vision, which saved them the trouble of finding out stuff for themselves.

To hide their inadequacy, the disabled invented a force called "fashion". This allowed them to be admired, even though they hadn't actually done anything. Thanks to suits and ties, the disabled could recognise one another across a crowded boardroom.

In the end, the suits and ties found that they could conduct business without the need for humanity to animate them, which left many humans without a job to do - even if it was only filling up a suit. The suits and ties went on alone to become the world’s first artificial life-form.

So the human race entered the 21st century with a very serious mental and physical health problem on its hands.

The Telephone-to-Heaven

Do you remember those people who didn't do their science homework? I mentioned them in passing, back there in the dialogue. Not to be outdone, they earn a place in our story.

The humans who wanted to get all their stuff wholesale from the bearded entity, set off in search of the central warehouse. They knew that the bearded entity was last seen hanging out in the Middle East, so they decided to settle over there. They all wanted to put in a call to the mysterious force, and in the Middle East, the Telephone-to-Heaven was charged out at local rates - or so they thought.

They selected a small piece of land that didn't have much stuff to begin with. Those settlers wanted lots of stuff, so space became a big problem. There was so much stuff to deal with, that it became necessary to displace millions of natives who didn't need much stuff, to make room for all the settler's stuff.

Just to drive the point home, the settlers made a wall of stuff to go right around their territory. Like a thick outline, it defined the boundary between lots of stuff and not very much stuff at all.

Then the settlers set out to wait for the bearded entity who, according to legend, was going to deliver them from the burden of all their stuff.

Many humans were struck by the irony of this. Middle Eastern natives had inherited the cure for the curse of stuff. All the settlers had to do was to ask them for it, but they didn't.

Who knows, they might otherwise have been the very best of friends.

Be careful what you wish for

Not far from where the Telephone-to-Heaven stood under it's golden dome, the world's last sweet and easy oil deposits waited under the burning sand. The desert breezes wrote a warning in the dunes, but the disabled people had no eyes to see it.

Long before there were any disabled people, or humans, or natives, the planet did a bit of stocktaking. In order to make the showroom more amenable for next season's models, it was necessary to re-define the environment within narrow limits. The answer lay with the atmosphere, which was a big word for something very small (in planetary terms). So small in fact, that it was no thicker than the skin is to an apple (which was still on the drawing board at the time).

The atmosphere was made up of invisible stuff called gases, which would have to be re-configured if life was to achieve its full potential. With infinite patience, the planet assigned the first biological machines for getting stuff, to the task of re-balancing those gases. Their task done, the myriad machines with their excess carbon were lovingly sequestered within the planet's warm bosom.

It seemed like a really good idea at the time.

But how could the planet have forseen the accident of the disabled people, or the suit-and-tie automatons, which had evolved to become the dominant life form? How could it have known that humans would use their tiny atmosphere as a rubbish tip for 150 years?

Even something as big and as clever as a planet has it’s limitations.

The Great Getting Machine

Early in the 21st century, Cheney's forces were lined up for a final assault on the remainder of the sequestered carbon. Many fine young humans were destined to die, so that the most severely disabled could go on enjoying the lifestyle to which they were accustomed.

Also present was the greatest machine for getting stuff that the world had ever seen. A great clanking, howling thing it was: at once aerodynamic, yet ballistic, yet amphibious and yet terrestrial to boot. That machine used torrents of oil, even when it was idling, so it was condemned to forever roam the planet in search of more oil. Like a shark, it just had to keep moving or die. Like an alcoholic, it leered at the Middle East.

The Great Getting Machine had been a work-in-progress for a hundred years. In all that time, humans spared no effort in its development, to the detriment of everything they held dear. It was the most criminal waste of resources in galactic history. That machine could only have been conceived by a severely disabled person, a suit and tie, or an Easter Islander.

Ever since a minor historical deity had been sacrificed in the early 20th century, the Great Getting Machine had roamed without pause across the planet. Many humans thought that the machine had a life of it’s own, even the ones who did do their science homework.

They were right.

As if awakening from a bad dream, the humans began to realise that the machine had created Cheney, right down to his trouser cuffs. The disabled began to realise that far from owning the machine, the machine actually owned them. They were beginning to wonder if, having plundered the oil, the Great Getting Machine would share it with them - or turn on them in their turn.

By now, it was beginning to dawn on most humans that the time had come to reclaim ownership of the planet of their birth, even if that meant disposing of all of their empty suits, ties, worthless tokens and bearded entities. It was time for the nurses to take back the asylum.

So the dawn broke on one very hot morning, and …

In the beginning

She-who-must-be-obeyed tossed in her hammock in the velvet infinity. To her left - nothing. To her right - nothing. There was only infinity, which was everywhere at once and nowhere in particular.

There was no good or evil, no flesh or nerves, no joy or sorrow. No company. No nothing. Only self, and no other.

Then she invented irony and humour, injustice and love, and tasted them - and it was good.

So she spread her awesome hand to the firmament and said -

"Let there be STUFF!"

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About the Author

Chris Shaw was a mining metallurgist, until retreating to care for his beloved partner. Mining metallurgists are trained to appreciate the laws of natural abundance. Mining is where the wishful thinking of economists meets the reality of nature. Chris sometimes operates under the pseudonym "Feral Metallurgist", so that he can enjoy an air of mystique which he doesn't actually deserve.

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